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What the Pandemic Taught Us About the End of Life and Grief

Hospice workers, ethicists and therapists say grief is a pathway toward healing

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Above image credit: What did the pandemic change about the way we process loss, grief and life? (Illustration by Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Canva)

Grief felt “closer” this year for Meagan Howard. It’s the only way she could describe it.

On May 16, her good friend died in a car accident. There was something different about this death. As a Black woman in the mental health field, Howard said she has personally felt the compounding trauma of the pandemic with racial tensions. 

That’s why it hit harder. 

But as she sat in silence and cried with another friend to mourn their loss, she felt the release. 

“That was more healing than someone saying, ‘It’s going to be OK’,” she said. 

Meagan Howard
Meagan Howard is transparent about her own difficulty to grapple with grief and now encourages others to find ways to navigate sometimes complex emotions. (Contributed)

Years ago, Howard personally struggled to acknowledge the grieving process when her grandmother died. Now, she works against that to help her own clients who are navigating complex feelings of anger, avoidance and sadness — symptoms of grief — and in her personal life. 

She specifically counsels folks with substance use disorders at Midwest Recovery Centers, which can often stem from unresolved trauma and loss.

The pandemic sparked a new kind of uncertainty, ranging from housing and job security to health security. This is why it’s more important now than ever to take a moment to pause and feel, she added.  

A paper for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on preparing palliative care providers explained that “anticipatory grief is the normal mourning that occurs for a patient/family when death is expected.” 

That anticipation evaporated in the wake of the public health crisis. Back in March 2020, the number of people infected and dying from complications skyrocketed. This, mental health experts say, caused a mental health whiplash.

“As a society, we’re just kind of told lock it down, keep it moving,” she said. 

However, she witnessed a shift this year that ranges between communal trauma to communal grief. 

Howard said grieving as a society has been an essential step toward collective healing. 

“One of the most powerful things that I saw from the pandemic is this sense of community,” she said. “There is power in being able to share your grief in a community setting with someone else. (It) gives us power when we feel like we don’t have any.”

From a mental health perspective, grief is healthy. 

“It’s needed, it’s necessary, it’s essential,” Howard said. 

“If we’re not allowing ourselves that grieving process, then almost in a sense we almost start to die internally. And I know that sounds kind of morbid, but that’s what it feels like is happening if we’re not allowing that to come out.”

Researchers at the NIH outlined what they call “context of grief” during the pandemic, which underscored how the public health crisis complicated an already sensitive process.

The study identified three specific changes during COVID-19: spread of the disease; social distancing and the increase of deaths; and hospitalizations and overburdened hospital systems. It outlined the financial, emotional, social and mental toll this would take on society at large. 

Among the recommendations was to address grief head-on: 

“Approach difficult conversations directly and do not shy away from discussing emotions, grief, and overall patient and family distress during advance care planning conversations.”

Trauma and loss experts have long advised families to begin conversations early about advance care planning. The idea is to ease ourselves into more comfortable conversations about what to do when someone we love dies. More importantly, these conversations serve as an emotional buffer. 

Caring Conversations

Life unexpectedly changed, leaving communities unsure how to grapple with uncertainty and at the same time inciting communal trauma of seeing folks die from COVID-19.

This brought to the surface ethical considerations that impact the grieving process. How do families broach the subject of advance care planning or Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders? 

That’s where Terry Rosell comes in. Rosell is an ethics consultant at the Center for Practical Bioethics — one of the only three centers of its kind in the United States. 

(Disclosure: the author’s spouse recently accepted a job at the center. The interview was arranged and conducted without their involvement.)

Rosell, who is also a faith leader, works closely with medical professionals and has seen firsthand how COVID-19 changed the way in which families and their doctors approach life and death discussions.

Terry Rosell
Terry Rosell is an ethics consultant and educator for the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences and the University of Kansas Medical Center. He also was a theology professor. (Courtesy | Center for Practical Bioethics)

“It’s hard enough to die. It’s hard enough to deal with our loved ones dying. So we ought to make it better,” he said. 

End-of-life care is also known as hospice and palliative care, which emphasizes keeping the person comfortable while they’re dying. This is part of what Rosell teaches when he presents to physicians and hospital staff.

“The first ethics matter around end-of-life care is taking care of these patients. Just because they’re no longer curative, just because they’re no longer receiving aggressive care, we still have a duty to care for them,” he said. “We ought not to abandon dying patients, right?”

Another part of his job is educating on advance care planning, which ensures a person’s wishes are fulfilled. To some extent, this practice can curb the anxieties that come with anticipating loss. 

But not everyone may know what hospice care or advanced care planning entails, which brings to the forefront the lack of visibility of end-of-life services. What the pandemic revealed was the need to address these conversations earlier on. 

This helps with the processing part of loss, Rosell explained. Death is a part of life and grief follows suit. 

“Any kind of significant loss has a grief response. It’s just part of being human,” he said.

Part of being human is finding comfort in some sort of routine, whether that be spiritual or a ritual. To that end, Rosell added: “Don’t give up on the grief rituals during COVID times. It helps us”

‘I don’t know who I am anymore’

For Oscar Orozco, being vulnerable is part of his job. 

Orozco was a former medical social worker for Children’s Mercy, where he helped at-risk children. Today, he works as a grief counselor at Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care. He echoes Rosell’s points on advance care directives to reduce the added stressors of planning while someone is on the decline.

Oscar Orozco
Oscar Orozco, a grief counselor at Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care, sees grief as an unpredictable wave. (Contributed)

Even though he’s been in his new role for a short few months, the need for counseling folks through the process has never been more clear. 

This year hardly anyone has been able to catch their breath. Orozco said he has talked to health care workers who are friends or clients and they said: “I can’t do this. It’s too much.” 

Why? 

“(There’s) death and traumatic death, and it’s different. This is not death that people could see coming,” Orozco explained. 

Another piece of complex trauma is identity and how folks have struggled to come to terms with the absence of their loved ones. 

“In our grief work, what I hear almost often is, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’,” he said. “People don’t realize that it’s much more than just the death of that person, but it’s the death of … routines, of day-to-day activities and memories and parts of our lives really that died with that person.”

He sees grief like an ocean. It’s unpredictable but sooner or later it’s easy to know when the waves are coming. Managing grief is like swimming, he explained, and sooner or later, we learn how to stay afloat. 

Oscar Orozco with his grandparents
Oscar Orozco (middle) lost his grandfather a few months ago. He’s since learned how to process the loss by channeling his grandfather’s love of food into his own life. (Contributed)

That’s how he feels about the recent death of his grandfather. He channels his emotions into cooking, which is how his grandfather expressed his love for the family. This physical act helps him emotionally recover and process. 

Processing is key, he said, but that’s been on the back burner for so many during the pandemic. So he advises folks who have experienced loss to be active and deliberate in the grief journey. That could mean going to their burial site for a visit, or it could be to buy their favorite meal from their favorite restaurant. 

Grief is an individual process. Orozco advises people to embrace the emotion whether it be by crying, journaling, hiking or traveling.

“You know, whatever it is that comes out naturally to express, but never cast it aside because we’re afraid of where it might lead,” he added. 

“We need to talk about this. We need to have those conversations because as uncomfortable as they might be, they could be lifesavers for (us) to continue to live our lives in a meaningful way.”


5 Tips on Navigating Grief

  1. Grief can be complicated and hard to pinpoint. That’s OK. Acknowledge the feeling or sensation (it could be a stomach ache, fatigue, lack of focus or emotions such as profound sadness or anger) as a first step. Experts say there are several kinds of grief: 
    1. Complicated grief: When loved ones ruminate about the cause of death, worry about the consequences, feel guilty and display avoidant behaviors, such as denial. Around 7% of bereaved people will experience this kind of grief.
    2. Disenfranchised grief: When a loved one loses a person or child. It “can occur when families are unable to grieve with normal practices of social support and rituals in burial and funeral services,” according to the NIH.
  2. Asking for help to begin the grieving process is OK. “Grief counseling can help,” said Terry Rosell at the Center for Practical Bioethics. “Ministers, clergy, rabbis, priests, there are a lot of people who can help with grief counseling (for free).” You can find grief counselors at your local hospice organizations and mental health professionals who specialize in loss — for good reason. One example is the Solace House Center for Grief and Healing.
  3. Communication is powerful. Talk openly with family members, chosen family or biological relatives, or friends about their wishes before death — sick or not. Studies on the psychological impact of meaningful conversations — or saying “goodbye” — among family members of cancer patients show it helps with depression and complicated grief. 
  4. Engage in activities that remind you of your loved one. This can also be characterized as play therapy if your loved one was an artist, which eases the transition from grief to acceptance. “I very much believe that spiritual practices or just rituals is how we get in tune with what our body is telling us about the loss we experienced,” said therapist Meagan Howard. 
  5. Cry. Therapists advise sitting in a safe, quiet place or with a support network to embrace the feeling and release. This is good both physically and psychologically. Crying is the body’s “release valve,” according to Dr. Judith Orloff, who wrote: “After crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter into a calmer biological and emotional state.”

Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.

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